It’s Time Himachal Owned Up to Its Caste Problem

When one talks about the small hill state of Himachal Pradesh, the image that comes to mind is that of a progressive place that has done reasonably well in terms of education, sanitation, electrification and even the public distribution system. Politicians and bureaucrats have often promoted it as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ or an abode of Gods where there is complete social harmony.

In this process, the issue of caste discrimination has gone unacknowledged and efforts have often been made to sweep the dark reality under the carpet. It needs to be underlined that Dalits constitute nearly 28% of the state’s population, making it the second state in the country – after Punjab – with the largest share of Dalits. Districts that have the highest Dalit population are Sirmaur, Kullu, Mandi and Solan. Social activists assert that caste atrocities are rampant across the state but are hardly reported.

This year alone there have been three major cases that have made headlines, at least in the regional media. In mid-February, a government-run high school in Kullu district segregated its Dalit students and told them to sit outside in a “place used for horses” during the telecast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Pariksha Par Charcha.’

The second episode that brought the caste issue to the forefront was the alleged murder of Right to Information activist Kedar Singh Jindan last month.

The most recent instance came from Nerwa area of Shimla district where a Dalit youth was allegedly beaten to death for failing to allow a vehicle being driven by three upper-caste youths to pass in a congested market.

Discriminatory practices 

Apart from these incidents, Dalits face other many forms of discrimination in their daily lives. A recent study conducted by People’s Action for People in Need (PAPN) called ‘Caste, Discrimination and Exclusion in Sirmaur’ brings out the different forms of atrocities that are rampant not only in this district but others as well. The study was carried out in the villages of Sangrah block where Dalits constitute 43% of the population.

It lists out certain discriminatory social practices that continue even today. The most prominent is the local judicial system of Khumli that comprises mainly Brahmins and Rajputs with no representation of Dalits and women. “Khumli takes important decisions in matters related to violence, rape and any other crime against Dalits by non-Dalits. This panchayat usually does not allow the Dalit community to approach the police for lodging cases against non-Dalits and instead penalises anyone who directly approaches the police,” the study states.

It further points out that in cases of heinous crime where there is a chance of the issue inviting uproar, the Khumli panchayat uses a method of compensation wherein the culprit is ordered to offer a goat and one meal to all villagers including non-Dalits present during the decision of Khumli.

The second practice listed out is that of ‘Doli Pratha’ where a Dalit has to carry palanquins of brides, grooms and a some other non-Dalits during marriages. “The wages for the work are very low and mostly Dalits have to do it under pressure of non-Dalits. In the cases of denying this service, the Dalit community has to face social boycott,” according to the study.

Then there is the practice of Kaji under which messages of marriage, death or any other important occasion are delivered by Dalits who travel several kilometres in tough terrain for paltry wages like Rs 20 or 2 kg of grains a day.

One of the most interesting practices that can be witnessed during the elections is that of Lota-Namak in which salt is mixed with water in a lota (a utensil to keep water) and people are asked to take an oath to side by the candidate failing which it is believed that the oath-takers’ body along with that of their family will decay as salt decays in water. Dalits still believe in this practice while non-Dalits use it as a tool.

The study also points at the Buddha practice that involves Dalits performing dance and music at houses of upper-caste on Diwali for at least three days. They are served food in separate utensils. There have been cases where refusal to do so has meant social boycott and some other form of punishment.

Other forms of untouchability

The study also lists around 129 untouchability practices. People belonging to several other districts have shared similar experiences with this reporter on several occasions.

For example, Dalits being served food separately on social occasions, children being segregated during the serving of mid-day meals in schools, separate cooks being deployed to cook mid-day meals for Dalits, and upper-castes not accepting drinking water from Dalits.

This study further points at Dalits being denied use of cars or riding a horse during weddings, organising large-scale processions on the occasion of death or marriage and construction of houses in non-Dalit hamlets. Inter-caste marriages are prohibited. When it comes to religion, Dalits are denied a role in managing temple affairs and there is discrimination in participation in rituals along withthe denial of entry in some places.

Politically speaking, the study lists the prevalence of practices like Dalits not being able to sit on chairs in panchayat offices and not being allowed to contest on unreserved seats.

Some interesting observations have been enlisted by those who carried out the study. It has been pointed out that the elected representatives from reserved seats do not act freely. Majority of their decisions are dominated by non-Dalits. “Untouchability practices are programmed in such a way that Dalits think that discrimination is a result of nature and God has created them to perform particular tasks,” the study points out.

In the area studied, most Dalits have no land for farming and grazing their cattle. Even in those villages where Dalits are in majority, most of the land belongs to non-Dalits.

Another glaring observation is that most of the villages or small clusters in the villages are known by the caste name if Dalits are in the majority. For example, a cluster (Tola) dominated by the Dom caste is called Dumeri while the actual village name is Chauta.

“There are some games where caste name is used to malign the Dalit community. For example, a game where a member is supposed to catch or touch his/her mates. All the mates will call him/her Chhu Chamat Chhu (touch cobbler touch); Holi Hai Re Holi, Kutte Ke Bachhe Khaye Koli (celebrating the game of holi and, singling Koli, a Dalit eats puppy),” the study says.

An academic from Kangra relates, “There is a practice in this part wherein a Dalit is temporarily made a maternal uncle of a child who shows an anomaly in bearing teeth. This is done with a belief to ward off any evil spell on the child.”

The moot question is why Himachal has been in a state of denial on this issue. “The denial comes from the influential class and politicians. Even when matters are taken to the police, the emphasis is on striking a compromise. This helps the police claim that the crime rate is zero. The politicians elected from reserved seats also do not raise these issues because they are dependent on non-Dalit votes to win an election,” says senior PAPN functionary Kuldeep Verma. He underlined how no Dalit MLA has till now come out condemning Jindan’s murder.

O.P. Barota of Himachal Gyan Vigyan Samiti said, “The first and foremost thing that needs to be done is acknowledging the problem. Next comes the step of addressing it. There is a need for a social upsurge against these practices. It is only the social activists who have been raising the issues. Since it is a social issue, a social angle has to be given to the prevailing practices. The government needs to ensure that the rights of the people are protected and the laws are properly implemented.

The PAPN study is an eye opener and more such pan-Himachal studies are needed for formulating a long-term strategy to deal with the problem that continues to be under wraps in the state.

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